From black holes to History… and vice versa

By Alina B. López Hernández

As the writings of Carlos Luque Zayas-Bazán limit their theoretical depth and descend into insults, they grow increasingly inappropriate for an internet site like Rebelión, which invites to reflection, and also has the healthy habit of divulging the points of view of all contenders. That’s not the left preferred in our ideological environment.

His tirades fit better in more intimate digital settings, such as his Facebook page, from where it was replicated by the blog PostCuba, also a quasi-private site once you look at the number of visits it reports, evidently by his friends. Birds of a Phraseology feather flock together at PostCuba.

Luque reacts this time to mi article ‘The Golden Republic’, published, as usual, in LJC. The novelty is that now he does so with an assistant: Ernesto Estévez Rams. From the first debate we held, it was unquestionable that he needed help, but it made sense to expect a more effective collaborator.

Professor Estévez Rams has a PhD and he specializes in the field of Physics. He must be very trustworthy in his specialty, but this obviously does not extrapolate to the field of History. The same would happen to me if I tried to plunge into the depths of the Theory of Relativity, or stand in front of an auditorium to explain the subject of black holes.

You can argue about history without being a historian. Stating the opposite would mean entering the reactionary halls of Platonism with VIP status. However, in order to participate in a serious debate, you need historical culture. Again, Luque fails at choosing his company.

I will now respond to the main objections of the physicist-cum-historian.

His first question: Is Bourgeois Republic the best name for the pre-revolutionary Republic? We owe the contribution to Fernando Martínez Heredia, in his essay ‘El problemático nacionalismo de la primera república’ (‘The problematic nationalism of the first republic’) –published in Temas, no. 24-25, January-June, 2001, pp. 34-44. I use it because I consider it quite fitting. For a long time, the three major stages in which Cuban history can be divided were called: Colony, Republic and the Revolution in power. But, as Fernando would well argue, the socialist stage also adopted a republican character, and the term revolution in power gave an element of temporary status to the State forged after ’59, and especially after the Constitution of 1976. His proposal attempted to legitimate the republican character of socialism by qualifying them as Bourgeois Republic (1902-1952) and Socialist Republic, in accordance with the type of property, the social classes and the constitutions they adopted.

The Bourgeois Republic itself has been divided into two stages: the First Republic (1902-1933) and the Second Republic (from the latter date until 1959).

Estévez denies that historiography after the Revolution ill-treated the Republic. Yes it has, dear professor, by omission and by unseasonable manipulation of facts and figures of that period.

The first of them becomes evident in the relative ignorance of our republican past. If Luque and company believe I am being dramatic, then read the assessment written by doctor Eduardo Torres-Cuevas –President of the Cuban Academy of History–, in the editorial of the journal Debates Americanos no. 12, January-December, 2002, entirely devoted to celebrating the centenary of the proclamation of the Republic: ‘A strange fear seems to surround and condition any approach to republican issues. The majority of historical sources which contain the most revealing material about the time are yet to be consulted. What’s more, when going over the most widely known studies about the period, one can confirm that the stage between 1940 and 1959 is almost completely unknown.’

It’s true a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since 2002, and it must be acknowledged that in the last fifteen years important studies about the Republic have proliferated, which I shall not mention here for want of space. However, they have not run the course which would take them from cold research into classrooms. The official history, the one being learned in schools, continues to focus on the negatives of the time.

The point about manipulation is visible –and I again quote Torres-Cuevas and his editorial– ‘…in the purely ideological approach that many use in order to try and explain phenomena they ignore in their essence. Adjectives, assertions lacking proper demonstration, abductive approaches which transfer to the past the mentality of the present, and judgments on human action determined by what would have been desired and not by an understanding of the circumstances and mentalities of the time…’.

The History enthusiast attempts to illustrate me about certain things I by no means have denied, such as the collective frustration brought about by the American occupation, the historical humiliation of the Platt Amendment and how, even after it was repealed in 1934, our economy remained dependent on that of the neighboring country.

My point was that, together with those realities, we should also unveil positive aspects of the republican past, which also existed, and that we shouldn’t standardize judgments that lack nuances and become unfair as they treat alike personalities who had great differences. As Eduardo Torres-Cuevas well said: ‘What set apart Gerardo Machado and Batista from Alfredo Zayas and Ramón Grau San Martín was that the former violated the Constitutions, they got their way by force and they both destroyed the Republics which begot them. An equal sign cannot be drawn between them.’

The trope that the revolution of the 1930s ‘flew away in the wind’ is an obstacle in trying to assimilate the undeniable contrasts between the First and the Second bourgeois Republics. According to a great scholar of the Republic, doctor Berta Álvarez Martens, as a result of that revolution, Cuban politics was re-launched and the Cuban nation was conceived and projected as a reality. The institutionalization and the guidelines generated in the 1930s allowed great sectors of the middle and working classes to exert social prominence and create organizations that would grow very strong within the reshaping of the State.

Even when control of the economy wasn’t in Cuban hands and it was very much tied to American dictates, this stage saw the passing of legislation on social, labor and economic issues like never before. The Cuban State, from 1940 onwards, had a liberal and democratic nature, with a social order aimed at public service.

It’s a reality that marked differences and contrasts prevailed in the way of life of the various social classes. And it’s also true that the democracy in the Constitution of 1940 is advocated not only in terms of individual rights, but also in terms of social and economic rights. This lead to the most advanced labor legislation in Latin America; to an organization of a Cuban school of democracy, egalitarian and progressive; and to a State which acted as advisor and regulator in the country’s economy.

In his piece, the doctor of Physical Sciences makes two glaring mistakes by stating that the Constitution of 1940 ‘was begotten against the wishes of the bourgeois by the most revolutionary forces, in a chaotic context where there was a pressing necessity to keep our own backyard quiet while fighting the Nazis in alliance with the USSR.’

The first mistake is chronological: the Constituent Assembly began its sessions on February 9 and concluded them on June 8, 1940. It would still take a year and fourteen days for Germany to attack the USSR, thus bringing it into the Second World War, an event that happened on June 22, 1941. If we become fastidious, we would even have to recognize that the alliance of Stalin’s government in 1940 was precisely with Hitler, with whom, in September 1939, it had signed a Non-Aggression Treaty with an accompanying secret clause concerning the division of part of Europe between the two powers. If you take the trouble to consult the Parliamentary Report of the Constituent Assembly of 1940, you’ll be able to verify the condemnation by the members of the Assembly of the Soviet intervention in Finland; of course, with the nay vote of the six communist representatives.

The second blunder is an ideological one: saying that the Constitution of 1940 was made ‘against the wishes of the bourgeois’. Apparently, Estévez does not accept that the Cuban bourgeoisie had sectors which, though reformist, as the Communist Party was too after its legalization, did have a progressive nature.

I refer him to my essay ‘Crónica de un fracaso anunciado: los intelectuales de la república y el socialismo soviético’ (‘Chronicle of an announced failure: the intellectuals of the Republic and Soviet socialism’), published in Temas, no. 55 of 2008, pp. 163-174, and also –if they haven’t taken it down– in the website of the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP), which now brings discredit to itself by hosting the uninformed PostCuba article. In it I say:

It’s no coincidence that in the two revolutionary moments of the bourgeois Republic, the intellectuals who represented various sectors of the bourgeoisie were the most active defenders of the revolutionary option and, in the long run, the proponents of armed struggle, the more radical way –Guiteras in the 1930s, Fidel in the 1950s. In the case of the struggle against Batista, this was done in open defiance of the stance of Cuban communists, who, with a dogmatic and foreign view, denied the insurrectionary possibility.

In the essay ‘Los siete pecados capitales del mal historiador’ (‘The seven deadly sins of a poor historian’), Mexican theorist Carlos Aguirre Rojas speaks about the mistaken notion of history conceived as a gigantic broom. His critique is very pertinent in light of the following proposition by Estévez: ‘There’s no unfair image to rescue here, nor any nostalgia to celebrate. The Republic was neocolonial and it remained neocolonial until the Revolution swept away the shadows and rescued the lights.’ According to Aguirre:

The fourth sin of poor history, repeated in the various traditional handbooks, is its limited idea of progress, which is directly connected (…) with the notion of time as physical time, unique, homogeneous and linear (…).

It’s an idea of human progress in history wherein it is stated that, inevitably, everything today is better than in any past time, and everything tomorrow will necessarily be better than anything today. Therefore, humanity can do nothing else than to move forward and forward non-stop since, going by this construction, the only thing it has done so far is precisely ‘progressing’, always advancing from lowly conditions to increasingly higher levels, in a sort of imaginary ‘ladder’ where it would be forbidden to look back, to leave the charted course, or to trace back, even a single step, on the path already covered. And things do not change too much if this idea is proposed by the contemporary apologists of capitalism, who want to defend at all costs the supposed ‘simple superiority’ of that system over any time in the ‘past’, or if it is put forth by vulgar Marxists –not by truly critical Marxists– who have tried to teach us that history moves forward and has to move forward, inevitably, from primitive communism to slavery, from slavery to feudalism, and from it to capitalism, so it can later end, with no possible choice, in the long-awaited socialism and, perhaps later, in the superior communism. An extremely simplistic view of progress and of history, rejected by Marx himself (…).[1]

The closing words of Estévez’s piece have completely baffled me. I thought my sight was failing me and I cleaned my glasses, but to no avail, they were still there, stubborn and imprudent: ‘O, the Republic! when I was young my father told me so much about that Republic, while he showed me his medal for the clandestine struggle that he earned for contributing to bringing it down!’

What I’ve learned from our history is that a lot of people fought, in clandestinity  and in the mountains, in order to defend the Republic and restore the constitutionality interrupted by the coup d’état of March 10, 1952. If Estévez’s father contributed to ‘bringing it down’ he must have been an ally of general Batista.

Since I assume he would not be proud of such a thing, my hypothesis is that his text is poorly written, and this calls for some criticism of the ANPP website administrator, because asking PostCuba to make corrections is asking the impossible.

With much respect I then suggest you amend the mistake, since others may think ill of that and say that a website that should be a stronghold in the defense of Cuban institutionalization is sheltering and abetting a follower of Batista.

I expect Luque and Estévez will be around for upcoming debates, and I trust that, for a change, they’ll be better prepared.

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[1]Carlos Antonio Aguirre: Antimanual del mal historiador, o cómo hacer una buena historia crítica (Anti-Handbook for the Poor Historian, or How to Write Good Critical History). Havana, J. Marinello Center for Research and Development of Cuban Culture, 2004, pp. 30-46.

(Translated from the original)